For centuries, Christians celebrated a horrific murder at Christmas. This was the brutal killing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, by soldiers in the year 1170. He was cut down in front of the altar of his cathedral by knights carrying heavy swords and it’s even said that Thomas Becket’s brains spilled out on to the floor.
Up until about 150 years ago, Christians wouldn’t just celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas Day but for twelve days starting on 25 December and ending on 6 January. Feasting and drinking would continue for nearly two weeks with special food culminating in a very rich Twelfth Night cake on 6 January.
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This was the date (6 January) that the three kings were traditionally believed to have arrived at the crib to venerate Jesus and offer him presents. Celebrations we normally associate with Christmas Day now were actually a feature of Twelfth Night at the time of the Knights Templar.
On the fifth day of Christmas, Christians paused in their merry making to remember a saint killed on that day in his cathedral: Thomas Becket. Because it was on the 29 December, 1170 that four knights burst into Canterbury Cathedral and finding Thomas at his altar, hacked him to pieces.
This was an appalling act of sacrilege that shocked the whole of Europe. The men of violence thought their act would please King Henry II of England who had fallen out badly with Thomas Becket. They had been friends but Thomas continuously asserted the rights and powers of the Catholic church over those of the king and Henry didn’t like that at all. He felt the church should be subordinate to his will and not vice versa.
In a fit of anger, the king yelled:
“Will nobody rid me of this turbulent priest!”
Four knights – Richard FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy and Richard le Breton – took Henry at his word. Eager to please their sovereign lord, they made their way to Canterbury and committed the terrible deed. The date of their crime was the 29 December.
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That was the fifth day of the twelve days of Christmas. As the shocking news spread across Christendom, there was a widespread clamour to make Thomas a saint. And so he was canonised by the pope not long after his death. The 29 December became his special day and a time when Christians would put down their festive food and drink to commemorate a bloody murder in Canterbury in the year 1170.